2 letters on Language


Dear Marco Belpoliti,

According to recent estimates, 1.5 million Italians have tattoos. It is a significant number (around 3% of the population) and totally unpredictable till the 1980s. What does this tattoo-mania mean? Is it simply affecting degenerates (as Adolf Loos would say)? Or does it reveal an archaism that does not want to disappear? Is it a strange form of post-modern familism (think of people writing on their bodies the names of girlfriends/boyfriends, wives/husbands, daughters/sons)? What does this tattooed nation stand for?

Pier Paolo Tamburelli

Dear Pier Paolo,

A great number of Italians, especially between the ages of 30 and 45, have drawings, words, sentences and pictures tattooed on their body. No matter if you show your skin entirely, partially, only in summer, or in specific places like the gym, pool or bedroom, it constitutes an interface with the world.

The skin is where an individual’s experiences can be read clearly: scars, wrinkles, marks, calluses, perforations, inscriptions and obviously, tattoos. In addition, our skin wears the state of our physical and mental health on its sleeve, so to say. It is a mirror that reflects us to ourselves and to others, even when we cover it up with clothing. Its function as an interface is therefore to show on the surface things that lie deep: thoughts, emotions, experiences, traumas, violence and pleasure. The word tattoo (from tatau in Samoan) was brought to Europe by the explorer James Cook, who discovered the practice in Polynesia. Tattoos became popular with prisoners, delinquents and prostitutes, in a word with the outcasts of society.

Now tattoos are a mass phenomenon. How so? The French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu explains how the skin is a part of the psychic identity of each person, and thus the act of inscribing it, cutting it or crossing it are actions taken on the very structure of the Self. These actions illustrate a constant need to redefine one’s self. In his book The Skin Ego (1989) Anzieu explains how the pressing urge to change one’s identity is what guides people who get tattoos. It is a way of telling others that there is “something” under their skin, not just nothing. But that’s not all. Today, the visible surface of the world as we see it on a daily basis is all full of writing and drawings — it is tattooed.

What is the line separating an arm decorated with a fantasy animal from the hide of a sofa upon which the same animal is depicted with open wings and flying in the direction of the floor? What if the floor is textured with pixilated flowers that can be felt under our bare feet as shapes that are at once disconnected from the world and orderly? What does all this mean?

That skin is not only what covers us, but it is the entire world around us — architecture, places, spaces, objects, shapes, etcetera — all reveals its decorated “face”. The idea that the world around us is inviolable and intangible — that it must be taken as it is, and not rewritten or inscribed — is now defunct. Tattoos on arms, legs, chests, shoulders and even necks and faces are analogous to the act that architects, graphic designers and advertisers carry out daily on visible surfaces everywhere. We humans are a significant appendix to these surfaces, but not the only one or the most influential one. The distance between objects and us has become shorter, and the tattoo is the most emphatic proof of this.

What do you think about it?